Three years after failing to pay a $180 speeding ticket, Bree, a 20-something home health care worker, is still suffering the consequences. With no savings and a ticket equal to nearly 20% of her monthly take-home pay, Bree knew immediately that paying the ticket wasn’t an option, without putting her already tight budget into a massive tailspin.
Even though she couldn’t afford to pay the ticket, she also couldn’t afford to take time off work to go to court.
“Court meets once per week, always during work hours. If you want to appeal, request a fine reduction or get longer to pay, you have to go,” said Bree.
Soon after she received the ticket, based on the promise of a higher paying job and lower living expenses, Bree moved out of town to stay with a relative. Even though she filed a change of address form with the post office, she never received any notifications about the unpaid ticket. More than a year later, she was stopped by the police because her brake light was out.
“The officer said my license was suspended but that was the first I knew of it,” said Bree.
Like so many people, Bree wasn’t aware that in Kansas, the failure to pay a ticket resulted in the suspension of her license.
Luckily, the officer didn’t arrest Bree, something he’s allowed to do for driving on a suspended license. Instead, he issued her a ticket for the brake light and driving on a suspended license. With three fines, court costs, and fees, including a reinstatement fee for her license, Bree learned it would cost her more than $600 to get her license reinstated.
With the help of family members, Bree was able to put together the funds to get her license back, but three years later, she’s still feeling the financial impact. Although she has a better paying job, having a suspended license on her driving record is keeping her from getting higher paying assignments that would require her to drive clients to shopping or medical appointments.
“If I had the money, I would have paid when I got the first ticket. Because I didn’t have it, I had to pay – and keep paying so much more,” Bree said.
Originally, license suspensions were used to promote driving safety by punishing and removing unsafe drivers from the road and thereby encouraging safe driving. However, the scope of license suspensions has expanded greatly. Instead of suspending driver’s licenses only where public safety is at stake, courts now use license suspensions as a tool for collecting this unpaid traffic citation debt.
These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, often start them on a path to incarceration, and raise public safety concerns. Ultimately they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible, for many to overcome. However, this doesn’t have to be the case. A number of states and local governments across the country have found workable solutions that more fairly punish individuals for breaking traffic laws, without breaking their back.
NO MORE SUSPENSIONS
Bree’s case isn’t unique to Kansas or Missouri. The Free to Drive Campaign, a coalition of organizations calling for the end of driver’s license suspension for unpaid fines and fees, estimates the driver’s licenses of 11 million Americans are suspended due to nonpayment of fines or failure to appear.
Today in 42 states, individuals are losing the right to drive just because they can’t afford the fine. Until 2015, this pay-to-drive scheme was the practice in all 50 states, until California made the break.
On the tail of a national uproar surrounding the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, the Obama administration began digging into the policing practices in Ferguson, MO. What they discovered was a system of institutional repression where Ferguson police officers wrote an excessive amount of tickets, all part of a desire to increase city revenue. What the city failed to acknowledge was the impact these excessive tickets were having on their most marginalized residents.
Michael Yuen, who was the CEO of the San Francisco Superior Court, looked at the report and, while San Francisco’s situation was different, he recognized the fines and fees structures of his court system were also having a negative impact on its low-income residents.
Low-income people couldn’t afford the tickets they were issued, and it was setting up a downward spiral, with additional fees added on to the fines, their driver’s licenses being suspended, followed by the piling on of even more fees.
He encouraged other court CEOs to look into the problem and they discovered the driver’s licenses of four million California residents had been suspended for failure to pay or failure to appear. In their report “Not Just a Ferguson Problem,” they concluded:
“These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome.”
It was enough to move Yuen to action which led to the San Francisco Superior Court discontinuing its policy of suspending licenses of those who did not pay and for those who did not appear in court.
Everyone’s first thought was that without the penalty, people would never pay. That did not prove to be the case. In fact, ticket revenue did not go down and the court’s per-citation rate rose slightly. When they began the program, the court was collecting an average of $200 per citation. That amount grew to $250 per citation. The year following the policy change, their on-time collections went up 8.9%
Of course, the change wasn’t as simple as “just stop suspending licenses and people will pay.” The courts implemented a series of operational changes in support of their policy and in support of the low-income residents they were hoping to impact through the change.
Once they established a program, they communicated it widely. What good would it do to implement changes to help drivers if they weren’t aware of the program? This included additional notices on tickets, printing and distributing a brochure about the new policy and how it worked, and making the information easily accessible on their website.
They created accessible and affordable payment plans. They offer community service as an option for individuals who can’t afford to make payments.
They implemented a program that offered discounts based on a person’s ability to pay.
They added online payment options and, as much as possible, eliminated the requirement to come to court or to the courthouse to pay or make adjustments allowed under the program.
They followed the premise, “the easier they made it for people to pay, the more likely they would.”
The program was so successful that other courts in California followed suit, and in 2017, the entire state of California discontinued the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment.
Since then, Mississippi, Virginia, Texas, Montana, Idaho, Maine and Washington D.C, have passed similar laws. In addition, four states are now requiring a hearing to determine whether the ticketed person’s failure to pay was willful or simply a reflection of poverty.
What all of these states are finding is that most people who don’t pay, don’t because they can’t afford to pay. All suspending their license does is make it more expensive for them to pay, when and if they eventually can afford to.
What suspension of an individual’s driver’s license without consideration of their ability to pay does is create a two-tiered society, said Elizabeth Patton, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity. “It’s a barrier navigable by our most well off and insurmountable by those who struggle the most to make ends meet.”
Patton made those remarks earlier this year before a special committee of the Kansas Legislature. While there were several bills introduced last year to offer some relief to individuals with suspended driver’s licenses, Patton was testifying in support of House Bill 2434, “revoking authority to suspend driving privileges for the nonpayment of fines from traffic citations.”
In a legislative session cut short by COVID-19, the bill, introduced by KS Rep. Gail Finney (D-Wichita), didn’t get very far. While there was a lot of public support for the bill, Finney said, she had very little faith the bill would have passed, even if the session hadn’t been cut short.
Finney was right about the growing support for ending the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment. It’s a concept that has broad-ranging, bi-partisan support, including support from conservative political advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity.
“People should make restitution and pay their debts, but we believe driver’s license revocation should not be the first step to trying to make that happen,” said Patton.
Surprisingly, the idea of banning driver’s license suspension for nonpayment isn’t a new concept in Kansas. It’s an idea that predates California’s implementation by nine years. A 2006 report, “Bonding Practices Fines and Fees in Municipal Courts,” compiled by an “ad hoc” committee of municipal judges from across the state, drew similar recommendations including:
• “Municipal and district judges should be authorized to modify mandatory minimum fines when there is sufficient evidence of inability to pay.
• Municipalities should be encouraged to establish more uniform fees and those fees should be reasonably related to the cost of the service.
• Credit given for community service performed to satisfy court-imposed sanctions should be increased.
• Convenient payment options should be offered, including payment by credit card in person, by telephone, or online, as well as other after-hour payment options.
• Alternatives to payment of financial obligations should be considered for defendants with special circumstances.
Last, but not least.
• Alternatives to driver’s license suspension as a means of increasing compliance with traffic citations should be considered.
While he identified his testimony as “neutral” on the bill, Shawn Jurgesen, special counsel to the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Kansas, expressed concern about the revenue impact to the Judicial Branch if driver’s licenses suspensions are discontinued. In previous fiscal year, $1.2 million collected from license reinstatement fees was used to fund the non-judicial salaries of the court.
Like California, everyone wants to know where the money is going to come from and like Ferguson, the costs are being born by those least able to afford it.
Finney says the lost revenue is a deal-breaker for some. However, like Yuen, she believes if you make it easier for people to pay, they will, and if the money the state is collecting in reinstatement fees decreases, their workload should decrease as well.
“With fewer suspensions, their workload should go down and so should their revenue needs,” said Finney.
Ahead of it’s time in 2006, the fact that this document has been dusted off and is being used as a guide for discussion around the Kansas Capitol appears to be a good indication that there is growing support for change.
In addition, a growing groundswell of interest in this topic across the country may help. Just this week, the New York Legislature passed a similar bill, and a bi-partisan bill for driver’s license suspension reform was introduce in the United States Senate.
FROM OUR SOLUTIONS DESK
This article is part of our “Criminalization of Poverty” Solutions Journalism Project. We don’t just expose problems. We also investigate what’s being done to fix them, whether those solutions are working and if they can be replicated.